Torin Douglas: BBC3 – are many of us really going to watch it?

C4 and the BBC are arguing over BBC3’s likely impact on commercial TV, but it’s hard to see any digital channel making much difference at the moment, says Torin Douglas

This week’s TV conference in Prague will be rather different from last week’s in Westminster. Though Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell will again be the keynote speaker, TV 2002 will concentrate on the commercial realities of the TV business, rather than the political dimensions. Yet the events of last week show just how important the politics remain.

Jowell’s speech at the Westminster Media Forum was overshadowed by that of new BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, who launched what many saw as an attack on what had been regarded as the BBC’s heartland. These “southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged, well-educated people” had, he said, got more out of the licence fee than they put in and were trying to “hijack” yet more of the BBC’s resources by complaining that the corporation was dumbing down its output.

The subsequent flak drowned out the news that Ms Jowell has once again delayed a decision on whether to approve what some see as the epitome of dumbing down – BBC3, the proposed digital channel for young adults. “Now is not the time to impose a new, publicly funded service on a fragile and highly competitive commercial TV market without being certain of the likely result,” she said.

This is another victory for the commercial companies, which have been lining up to attack the BBC on all fronts – digital TV and radio, magazines, Internet, education and broadband. In every case, they argue that the BBC has become too commercial and too powerful.

Channel 4’s sudden change of heart over BBC3 – calling on the Government to turn the plan down – has put a serious spanner in the works, as I predicted last month (MW February 7). C4 claimed that, by targeting the young adult audience of C4 and E4, BBC3 would siphon millions of viewers – and substantial revenue – away from the commercial sector. The BBC produced its own figures, which were rather less alarming.

What no one foresaw was that, to resolve the dispute, Ms Jowell would call in an unlikely arbiter – the Independent Television Commission, which regulates commercial TV. Until now, the ITC has had no significant role in the BBC’s affairs. Jowell asked the ITC to look at the evidence and – surprise, surprise – it supported the commercial broadcasters’ figures. Now she has asked the BBC and the ITC “to clarify and, if possible, reconcile their different views”.

It would be fun to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. For ITC chief executive Patricia Hodgson and her two main policy advisers formed the BBC’s top policy team under John Birt, and could well be given key positions in the single regulator Ofcom. This “truth and reconciliation” process could be a taste of things to come for the BBC.

In his speech, Davies set out to pre-empt Jowell’s concerns about BBC3. The BBC estimated the damage to commercial channels at about £4m, compared with the £25m suggested by C4 and others. Davies said that this must be weighed against the £80m BBC3 would invest in domestic programme production, which was now being delayed.

Who is right? It turns out that the BBC’s £4m figure referred to the incremental cost – the difference between the impact of BBC3 and that of BBC Choice, the channel it will replace. The commercial sector’s £25m figure was for the total impact.

You could argue that the BBC’s is the more relevant figure, since BBC Choice already exists and no one – yet – has suggested it should be closed down. But you can see why the commercial sector would wish to emphasise the whole picture.

Davies also said the BBC badly needed a service like BBC3 to win back its lost audience share among young adults. Hence his comparison between the “southern, white, middle-aged, middle-class” and the “Asian teenager on the streets of Leicester”. Both had an equal claim on the licence fee, he said, which was why a channel like BBC3 was as important as BBC4, the new arts and culture channel. And without BBC3, he claimed, it would be harder for the Government to switch off the analogue TV signal.

This is another political judgment, which Tessa Jowell must make in reaching her BBC3 decision. Rival channels say that BBC3’s launch won’t help digital take-up, because most of its target audience already subscribe to digital channels. But, as commercial TV executives gather in Prague, it is worth asking which, if any, channels can now drive digital take-up?

BBC4 is a useful reminder of the practical problems of winning an audience in the ever more competitive TV world, let alone persuading viewers to invest in digital TV. With output such as Peter Brook’s Hamlet, Eddie Izzard in A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, concerts, documentaries and discussions, BBC4 is appealing to an audience under-served by digital TV.

For a digital channel, BBC4 has had a huge and critically successful launch. Lots of stylish 48-sheet posters, evocative black-and-white trailers on BBC TV, a huge leaflet drop, all on the memorable theme “Everyone needs a place to think”. There has been enormous publicity in the press and the opening night had the benefit of a huge sampling operation – simultaneous transmission on BBC2.

Yet even on that night, audiences were – inevitably – small. What happens when the launch marketing budget runs out?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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